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Cooperation is as wild as competition in Sea of Thieves

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

A ring of pirates sit around a piece of booty. Rare/Microsoft

The galleon is full of pirates and glittering, high quality treasure, and an empty sloop sits nearby. Two groups of players are parked outside a dormant fort. The sloop’s captain sits, surrounded by the crew of the galleon. The young man knows that if he runs, he will be gunned down.

“What is the capital of Mississippi?” the galleon captain asks. He speaks with a heavy Danish accent, and there’s amusement in his voice. The rest of his crew chuckles as the silence stretches on; the sloop captain finally admits he doesn’t know.

This isn’t a typical gameplay loop in Sea of Thieves. Two crews made their own fun by setting up a makeshift game of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Sloop captains who successfully answer trivia questions get to pick their choice from a pile of treasure. Failure means engaging in a heated saber duel. Anyone who cheats is forced to walk the plank.

When the game first launched, experiences like these were drowned out under an endless torrent of PvP content over forts and gold. Now, players are learning to work together.

Shelley Preston, Senior Designer on Rare, is pleased that the Sea of Thieves is turning from a battle royale brawl into a more nuanced environment. “It’s really about building that bond between players,” she told Polygon at E3. “I don’t think there’s any game experience out there like it. That’s what’s unique and special about Sea of Thieves, and that’s what we’re continuing to build on.”

As the game evolves, that bond has changed from just the experience of your four-person crew against the world to an entire world of pirates potentially standing side by side.

A band of pirates celebrate a successful fort kill Rare/Microsoft

The Hungering Deep, the game’s first expansion, cut down on player versus player combat by 50 percent, as players were meant to take out the Megaladon together. Now that the game has hit its stride, and content patches are regularly hitting the game, pirates are learning to work together to achieve their goals. The early days of events and expansions are always friendly. As the expansion drags on and captains complete their goals, the fighting can start again, but the tone of the game has been forever changed.

Fighting against the Megaladon was a challenge that required multiple crews working together, and while there was always the risk one galleon would turn on another, the beast beneath the waves was always the greater threat. Pirate fleets are now starting to roam the sea, led by groups who have forged informal alliances during previous combat.

Some ships are more competent then others. When my friends and I struggled against the Megalodon, we saw a galleon stagger into the fight, slowly turning against the turblence caused by the creature. The four-man ship was staffed by one captain.

“Hey!” he howled above the rushing water. “Hey, guys! I have supplies!”

The Megalodon turned on him, and murdered him. We thanked him for his sacrifice as we looted his sinking ship, filling our pockets with cannonballs and bananas before turning back to slay the titular Hungering Deep. Once you have an experience like that, side by side with another pirate, it’s hard to go back to the rumble and tumble of immediately lighting everyone up.

An angry megalodon charges a pirate Rare/Microsoft

Joe Neate, Executive Producer on Sea of Thieves agrees. “Most games are about ‘me,’” he says. “But for Sea of Thieves, we’ve always tried to be about that bond.” The experience is similar to Day Z, but less hostile and more accessible. The developers aren’t interested in creating a raiding end-game that locks players out, although the tutorial may be revisited at some point to better guide new players. Every pirate in Sea of Thieves is equal, and can potentially be a valuable ally.

“What we think is the magic of Sea of Thieves is just the journey,” Neate says. New expansions will always be set around coming up with new ways to make each journey different, new tools to expand the experience. The speaking trumpet and flags have allowed pirates to declare intent and communicate at long ranges, helping to create long range standoffs, tense negotiations, and eventual truces.

What the developers didn’t expect to emerge was a system of pirate alliances. The limited systems of Sea of Thieves have led some players to get creative in making allies. Now that many long term players have full wardrobes and pockets lined with gold, the most valuable thing in the game is another ship.

Sloops were once considered Kill On Sight by many galleon captains, but now they’re valuable. If you can convince a Sloop’s captain to use the in-game Make Friends feature, you can play with more than four friends on two ships. Galleons are more difficult to finagle, since they’re bigger ships with larger crews. Now sloops are flighty and eager to take off ... and galleons will often chase them down, cooing sweet nothings over their speaking trumpets.

The previously one-dimensional interaction has become much more weighted in favor of the sloops, who can demand their price. Once a deal is struck, pirate captains graduate to commodores, and fleets roam the Sea of Thieves.

The game’s next weekly event will be centered around underwater exploration, and the next expansion is set to hit this month. Sea of Thieves may have started slow, but now the game has managed to develop its sandbox and set up fun, organic ways for players to interact. There are fewer systems, but the game manages to produce unique journeys each time, and the next round of content should further flesh out the myriad ways things can go terribly, horribly wrong on the seas.

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